From anise seed to za’atar, spices play a major role in today’s culinary world. Primarily used to prepare foods like fresh vegetables and meat, these plant substances offer a variety of taste-bud-tantalizing flavors. But access to these rich and diverse flavors hasn’t always been so easy. The next time you search for spices at your local farmers market, here are a few interesting details to know about their expansive history across the globe.
Evidence suggests that hunters and gatherers used spices before transitioning to an agricultural society as a way to preserve food. By wrapping food in leaves and bark, they discovered that certain substances—such as mustard seed—helped enhance flavor.
Use in Ancient Cultures
Historical writings reveal that Ancient Mesopotamians documented the use of several spices—including thyme, cardamom, and garlic—and how to cultivate them from fresh produce. In addition to cooking, Ancient Egyptians were found to use spices in the mummification process. Early Chinese cultures also studied spices and the effects they had when used as part of herbal medicine.
The Emerging Spice Trade
From China to Egypt, trade routes were established to exchange valuable spices that came from exotic locales such as India, Greece, and Arabia. This exchange continued to grow throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, when conflicts—such as the Crusades—allowed different cultures to come into more frequent contact with one another.
New World Discoveries
Between the 12th and 16th centuries, explorers—such as Marco Polo, Vasco de Gama, and Christopher Columbus—came into contact with many civilizations in the New World. Positioned in entirely different areas of the globe, these civilizations were found to use a variety of spices prepared from fresh vegetables, herbs, and other plants.
Due to their rarity, New World ingredients—such as cocoa, vanilla, and various pepper types—captivated wealthy Europeans and became highly valuable. To take advantage of this economic potential, Europeans established colonies in the New World and began farming to participate in the growing global spice trade.
Eventually, the settlement of America, industrial trade, and advanced agricultural practices made it easier for cultures to access rare ingredients. As such, many spices lost the value that they once had. Despite that decline, these ingredients still play an important role in global culinary practices. Today, most spices can be found at local markets for use in recipes prepared with fresh vegetables, meat, and other items.
Next time you want to prepare a meal using fresh produce and spices, head over to Muzzarelli Farms in Vineland, NJ. For decades, our family farm has grown a variety of non-GMO fresh vegetables and fruits—including corn, watermelon, tomatoes, and blueberries. For added flavor, you can also turn to this farmers market for a wide selection of herbs and spices, including basil, dill, parsley, and peppers.